Camping for Beginners: Everything First-Timers Need to Know

Use these expert tips to get ready for your beginner camping trip.

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When the weather is nice, people start looking for ways to get outside and enjoy it. Camping is one of the most immersive outdoor activities. If you’re thinking about getting into camping, there are a few things you should know before heading into the woods for a weekend of fresh air and sunshine. Here is our guide to camping for beginners, informed by experts.

Meet the experts:

Different Types of Camping

Most casual campers and professionals agree that there are two types of camping — car and backpack — that include more specific categories like glamping, RV camping and base camping. So what’s the difference?

Car camping means you remain near your car, so you can store supplies or even sleep in your car. At a car camping campsite, Watta says “you generally have a boxed area with sand called a tent pad where you pitch your tent, a picnic table and a fire pit.” Other amenities may include restrooms, shower facilities (speaking of, an outdoor shower kit will come in handy) and bear lockers.

“In base camping,” says Watta, “you usually carry what you need in a backpack, hike in a few miles, and set up your campsite.” This campsite serves as a home base for the duration of the trip. From there, you can go on day trips and hikes to explore the area.

Backpacking takes things a step further. On a backpacking trip, you’ll pack up in the morning and hike out to a new campsite. This is a great way to explore a larger area in one trip. It’s also useful for trips where it takes more than a day to hike to the destination.

Glamping and RV camping are the least rugged of the camping types. Glamping, or glamorous camping, may or may not involve hiking to a campsite; the site is usually set up and ready when you arrive. These large tents can be rented through sites like Airbnb. RV camping means you sleep in a recreational vehicle, such as a motor home, travel trailer or camper van.

Where Should Beginners Camp?

The backyard is the easiest place to practice setting up a tent and sleeping outdoors. After backyard camping, McMahon and Watta recommend car camping for beginners. Having a car nearby gives you space to overpack and shelter from rain, and leave quickly if you need to. But car camping still provides the experience of sleeping outdoors in a tent.

Start at a traditional campsite, such as a state or national park or a KOA. These locations usually have staff or park rangers, bathroom facilities and paved trails, along with other campers.

Once you’ve become comfortable at a traditional campground and familiar with the things you need to pack, McMahon recommends “dispersed camping,” where you drive to a backcountry location but still set up camp near your car.

“This is a nice ‘second step,’ ” McMahon says. “You’re not around others and really have to be prepared, but [you] still have your car so that you can have extra gear and the ability to drive if you really need to leave.”

When to Camp

With the right gear people can camp in any season, but moderate temperatures are best for beginners. Timing will depend on your location. Generally speaking, spring and fall are the best times to camp. Each season has its benefits and drawbacks.

“Spring is a great time to head out with fewer insects,” Watta says. “Keep in mind that it’s colder at higher elevations, so if you’re out in the fall, pay attention to the evening temperatures.” Winter camping requires specialty gear and is not ideal for first-time camping. We’ll talk more about packing and gear below.

Camping for Beginners: How to Prepare for a Trip

Camping Gear Load Outapomares/Getty Images

When you’re packing for a camping trip, McMahon recommends a “load out,” regardless of how experienced you are with camping. A load out means laying all your supplies on the floor like in the photo above. You can pack more stuff if you’re car camping. If you’re backpacking, you’ll have less room and may need to bring less.

As insurance, create a physical list and check items off as you pack them, not as you add them to the load out. “I’ve seen more than one person check off that they had the item nearby, but it never made it into the backpack or car,” Watta says.

Speaking of the car, be thoughtful in the way you load it. Don’t bury your 10 essentials beneath your pillows and games. Load in a way that lets you take out the most important stuff first, namely your shelter and water. “You also don’t want to be scrounging around in the dark trying to find your headlamp,” Watta says.

Having a plan and taking safety measures are other important parts of preparing for a camping trip. Always choose your location and study the route ahead of time. Keep a paper map in case your cell phone dies or you can’t find a signal. Watta also says to make sure you “have identified how and where you’re going to get water, and that someone knows where you’re going and when you’ll be back.”

Packing List

Your packing list will depend largely on the type of camping. Backpackers who need to save space and weight may wear the same outfit every day. Car campers, on the other hand, “may pack an outfit a day, a larger stove and more food because it’s more about the campsite experience, and the car is nearby for easy storage,” says Watta.

At the least, your packing list should include 10 essential items. McMahon outlines these:

  1. Navigation;
  2. Headlamp;
  3. Sun protection;
  4. First aid;
  5. Knife;
  6. Fire;
  7. Shelter;
  8. Extra food;
  9. Extra water;
  10. Extra clothes.

These 10 camping survival essentials are also recommended by the National Park Service. There are some options within each category. For example, you might choose to bring multiple forms of lighting, like a flashlight and a headlamp. Or you might bring a multi-tool or repair kit in addition to a knife. Some creature comforts are good additions to the essential 10, especially when camping for beginners.

Camping Clothing

Everyone will have different clothing preferences, and the list will change depending on the season. However, McMahon offers a simple formula for all seasons: base layer, insulation and shell.

When it’s cold, the base layer will be warmer. In the summer, a light, moisture-wicking fabric like a running shirt is better. The insulation layer provides warmth. This might be a puffer jacket. Finally, the shell protects from wind and rain.

“The best shells are generally made with Gore-Tex,” says McMahon. It’s important to pack one regardless of the season. “Even on a 70 degree day, when you get covered in sweat hiking and stop to rest in a windy area, you can find yourself shivering,” McMahon says.

Other necessary camping clothes include hats and gloves, long pants, hiking shoes and lots and lots of socks. Seriously. Wet socks are uncomfortable and, as Watta says, they’re “a great way to get blisters.”

Camping Food and Cooking Essentials

Some campsites have grills and fire pits. Others don’t. You might find a camp stove comes in handy in both situations. To make camping meals easy, Watta says to bring a “stove, fuel, lighters or matches, a pot to cook with, bowl to eat out of and something to eat with.” The latter could be an easy-to-pack spork.

As for camping food itself, pack nutritious meals and snacks that are easy to prepare without a stocked kitchen. McMahon treats himself to hard meats and cheeses for the first night, then settles for dehydrated meals, which aren’t half bad. His favorite is Mountain House. Dehydrated camping food is available from many stores and brands. Salty snacks and energy gels, like GU Energy, help on long hikes.

Camping Tools and Gear

Again, essential outdoor tools and gear will depend on the campsite location and season. You probably won’t need a water filtration system at a campsite with running water and drinking fountains. Here are a few camping products to consider:

  • Water filtration;
  • Fire starter;
  • Firewood;
  • Hand axe, hatchet or saw;
  • Compass;
  • Emergency signal, like a whistle and mirror;
  • Cord or rope;
  • Seating;
  • Insect repellent;
  • Hammock;
  • Multi-tool;
  • Duct tape;
  • Mallet or hammer;
  • Food storage.

Sleeping Gear

Pack sleeping clothes that are appropriate for the nighttime temperatures during your trip. The same rule goes for your sleeping bag; some are rated for temperatures below zero, others for 40 F and above. You certainly don’t want to be too cold at night, but being too hot is another concern.

“Try to aim for a sleeping bag that is 10-15 degrees within the temperature range for the evening,” Watta suggests. This will keep you comfortable if temperatures fluctuate slightly. A blow-up sleeping pad and pillow make a world of a difference without taking up much packing space.

Pro tip: “Don’t blow (the pillow) up all the way,” Watta says. “Keeping it a little underinflated helps it move less and feel more like your usual pillow.”

Campsite Prep

Once you arrive at the campsite, setting up your shelter is usually the first step. Choose a spot where the ground is level and smooth. “Leave a little weight in the tent itself,” says McMahon. “You’d be surprised how well they can fly with just a little wind.”

It’s also a good idea to set up everything you’ll need for sleeping that night, even if you arrive early in the morning. “I promise you that blowing up a sleeping pad is the last thing you’ll want to do after a full day of adventuring,” McMahon says.

Next, you’ll need to find a place to store your camping food, particularly if you’re backpacking or base camping. “Food should always be kept 100 yards from camp,” Watta says. “As a matter of fact, anything with a scent should be removed. Bears and other animals have learned that where they smell toothpaste, there’s food.”

A bear canister can go beneath a log or between some trees, while an Ursack or dry bag can be hung from a tree.

Camping Activities

Watta and McMahon recommend hiking and kayaking as camping activities. Nature photography, bird watching and sunset spotting are other fun ways to enjoy the views around your campsite. If you’re car camping, you can pack a yard game like giant Jenga or cornhole, but a simple deck of cards is a must for games by the fire.

As you set up camp and explore the area, and later when you pack up to go home, follow the principles of Leave No Trace to minimize the impact on plants, animals and other campers.

Mikayla Borchert
Mikayla is an assistant editor for Family Handyman, specializing in indoor and outdoor gardening, organization and décor. She has one cat and holds a B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota. Outside of work, she likes running, skiing, hiking and tending her balcony garden.